Sarah Vowell puts her unique spin on an obscure piece of American history
Sarah Vowell is the American history teacher we all wish we’d had. Slightly sardonic, often hilarious, and deeply sympathetic, she guides us into the thick of the past with tongue in cheek and quip at the ready, pointing out ironic connections, wandering down fascinating side roads, and offering up delectably obscure facts with the cheerful assurance that they are indeed better than fiction.
“I do love a tangent,” she tells me, “and a fun fact.” When asked about her skills as a storyteller, she prefers the word lore. “I like layers of lore. I’m a lore archaeologist.”
We’ve traveled with her on pilgrimages to presidential assassination sites in Assassination Vacation, to Puritan colonies in Massachusetts in Wordy Shipmates, and to the shores of American imperialist intervention in Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes. We’ve laughed with her as a regular guest on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and This American Life. We’ve even related to her teen angst as the perfectly cast Violet Parr, the shy teenager in the Pixar animated film, The Incredibles.
In her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, the inimitable Sarah Vowell tells the swashbuckling tale of an orphaned French aristocrat who arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, at all of nineteen, to serve the American cause. Because of his passion for American liberty, as well as his high rank within French nobility, not to mention (perhaps most importantly) his willingness to serve without pay, the Marquis de Lafayette was promptly commissioned as a Major General. He turned out to be a skilled and brave soldier, who befriended George Washington, was wounded in battle at Brandywine, led the liberation of Virginia, and suffered through a winter at Valley Forge. He even rode a white horse.
“The book was a few years in the making,” says Vowell. “It stemmed from a piece I wrote about Lafayette’s return trip to the U.S. in 1824, when three quarters of New York City turned out to cheer him. I started researching that trip, and realized how much affection we used to have for him. For so long in our history, to Americans, Lafayette was France, and France was our great ally.”
She wrote the book, at least in part, to highlight the importance of that alliance.
“The United States could not have won the revolutionary war without French help – their money, their soldiers and sailors, their equipment and gunpowder. Lafayette is just the most charismatic symbol of that,” she says.
And the symbol remains, lingering in the American towns named after him – there are three in Wisconsin alone – but Vowell reminds us how real the stakes were in 1781, when Washington sent Lafayette to Yorktown. There, the 23-year-old general fielded a campaign that would culminate in British defeat six months later. “It was the most conclusive battle of the American revolution,” Vowell says, “and the great triumph of the Franco-American alliance. There were more French soldiers and sailors who fought at Yorktown than Americans.” And she lays out perhaps our most poignant response, over 100 years later, in the twilight of World War I. “When General Pershing’s allied expeditionary forces marched into Paris in 1914, they went straight to Lafayette’s grave, where one of them said, “Lafayette, we are here.”
Depsite her popularity and prolific output, for all her obsessive curiosity and sharp delivery, Vowell herself remains an enigma.
“What I am is moody,” she says. “I can’t stay in a jokey mood forever, and I can’t stay in a sad mood forever. I’m just constantly … I’m the weather.”
Info: 7 p.m., Oct. 24, Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; free.
VOWELL SOUNDS Sarah Vowell will bring her new book ‘Lafayette in the Somewhat United States’ to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Saturday, Oct. 24.